Re-Revision: Getting Messy

Henry John Yeend King, Victorian_gardenDon’t Tell Me: I’ve had my fingers crossed so long they ache. Do you know the feeling? Have you ever waited for feedback or through revisions, hoping against hope that this time was the charm? Anticipation rides high for a while. But time slides by and something changes. During the latter days of those fingers-crossed, hoping-against-hope waiting periods, I often begin to imagine the worst. They think it sucks. They weren’t drawn in. They can’t even force their way through my swamp of awful words. At some point a reversal occurs. I actually start to dread what I might hear.

Yet Again: So now I’ve actually heard, and lived to tell. I received some high-level critique of book one of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Bonds of Blood. There’s a lot to take in. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was good. I’ve been here before. I know I may be down, but I’m not out. And most of the advice I received this go-around rings true in my gut. Which means I am headed into revision…Yet again.

It’s not hugely shocking for me. But I must admit I’m disappointed. Of course after each round of revision, you hope your manuscript is finally ready. But even as I sent it out, deep down I had a feeling it wasn’t quite the book it could be. And it’s exciting to hear how close it is to ready, from several trusted sources.

The Labor Behind the Plot: I’m no gardener. But my dad was. My mom, too. When I was a boy, our family’s half-acre plot of land was lined with pristine garden beds, and there was always something in bloom. My mom had a real touch for it. In the early sixties, her gardens were featured in House & Garden Magazine. Neighbors would come and admire the gardens, as would passersby. My siblings and I were very proud of them, and her.

In the backyard my dad had a two huge vegetable patches. And he kept a compost pile. In the fall my dad would spread the compost accumulation and the lawn clippings over the vegetable patch. Then in the spring, he would turn the whole thing. By hand. With a spade. It took him a week or more, all in his spare time—evenings after work and weekends. But, boy, were his tomatoes wonderful! The soil in that patch of garden was greasy-black and rich. Everything grew well there—cucumbers, squash, radishes, peppers, carrots. It was all delicious stuff.

Our house was a simple, middle-class, three-bedroom ranch. But that simple little house was situated on a pristinely tended plot. And, having seen my parents toiling, having been put to work weeding, mowing, sweeping, and shoveling snow through my childhood, I knew that well-tended look, that riot of blooms, and those juicy tomatoes came at a price.

Digging Deeper: As I said, I’m no gardener. Maybe it was all those days weeding and mowing rather than riding my bike or playing baseball, but I don’t enjoy the act of gardening. I do enjoy having a nice garden and grounds. And now that I have my own house, I’m willing to put in the necessary level of labor to achieve a modestly attractive landscape.Karen's flowers (Photo by Karen Halsted)

As I was tidying our yard today, I was contemplating my upcoming revision. As I weeded and trimmed last year’s dead growth from our modest gardens, I realized a few things. Our gardens are never going to garner attention and admiration. We’ll never grow the kind of tomatoes that make people light up when we dole out the extras. Our yard and gardens are tidy, but nothing special. If we really ever want to make them special, it would take some serious commitment to hard work. It would have to start with the soil. We’d have to remove the surface mulch and replant everything. We’d have to dig deep, add nutrient-rich compost and manure and peat. And turn it. By hand. With a spade. For days. Like my dad used to do it.

My Pristine Garden: I may have work to do on my manuscript, and it is far from perfect, but one thing noted by most who’ve read it: it’s clean. I’ve worked at making it tidy. I’m not saying it’s masterfully written, but there are very few mistakes. The paragraphs and scene breaks work well. The POV changes flow smoothly. Mechanically, it’s fairly well-tuned, by most accounts. I’ve weeded my typos, and carefully trimmed and edged the breaks. The pathway through is smoothly groomed.

And, much like my yard, it’s very nice—but not as special as it could be if I did some diligent work and deeper digging.

Getting Messy: The most daunting part of returning to revision is knowing how messy it will be. If I dig in like I need to, all of my work to make it pristine will go by the wayside. Rewritten scenes will have clunky sentences and typos. And the scene changes may not be smooth. It will take more feedback to be sure readers aren’t accidentally tripped up on my new pathway through the garden of my manuscript.

But I realize it must be done. And my work this year may not yield ripe fruit and gorgeous blooms before the season’s changing. Another summer of my journey may pass. But if I am willing to get messy, and to be diligent, the growth in seasons to come will inspire the impact and results I seek—the response from readers that I know my story has the potential to inspire.

Pristine is not memorable or moving. Unlike my yard, I believe my story is worthy of being memorable and moving. Unlike my yard, there is no choice. I owe it to my muse and to everyone who’s supported me to get this far. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and take up my spade.

It’s time to get messy.

How about you? Ever had aching crossed fingers? Are you willing to dig into your pristine garden and get messy? 

37 comments on “Re-Revision: Getting Messy

  1. Julie Luek says:

    And to run with that garden thought… When you plant, you have a vision of what the final garden will all look like– the final harvest or glorious blooms. In as much as gardening can be therapeutic or great exercise, most of us want an end product outside the zen of toiling.

    When I write, I know what I want that final version to read like. I know what I’m trying to produce. In my head, I see the glorious bloom of words and luscious harvest of ideas…thoughts…stories. The gap between what is and what I want is often where the revision comes in and can be discouraging.

    Great post, Vaughn. Thought-provoking.


    • Good point, Julie. Having a vision for it is key! I know that in order to dig deeper, I have to ask myself some deeper questions. Part of my problem has always been that my story goes on, as I have a finished trilogy of manuscripts. A lot of what I want readers to feel is further on in the story. But the story of book one has to make readers feel something, or why should they read on?

      That’s a wonderful observation, that we should seek to know what we want the final version to read like, and that the gap is what revision is all about. Very astute. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Julie!


  2. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    Have fun getting messy. I’m about to get messy with my manuscript after some feedback. I just returned from a children’s writing retreat Big Sur in the Rockies. The feedback broke a couple of my stories, but thankfully, I have pieces to build it again. I was so impressed by some stories shared and those writers said they had been working, changing — well gardening for years on those stories. It showed too. It was a great mixture of inspiration, hope and work. Back to work. Good luck with yours.


    • Putting yourself out there, as you’ve done, Stacy, takes courage and fortitude. So good on you for that. And it’s so wise of you to recognize those pieces you still hold. I just went to a conference as well, and came away with a new outlook and vim for the job ahead. Let’s get messy together, my friend! Best of luck moving forward, Stacy!


  3. Kerry Ann says:

    I feel you. My knees are muddied and fingernails blackened by re-revision. When will it ever be “good enough?”

    I am an occasional gardener. Friends have compared my backyard (during that slight season when everything is in bloom and the mosquitoes don’t carry us away) as paradise. My veggie garden at times provides me with succulent pleasures that make all my sweat and scrapes worthwhile. I’m waiting to feel just a tiny bit of that pleasure and dare I say pride with my novel.

    This gardener will continue to get her hands dirty and see what grows. It may take a few seasons, but I haven’t killed it yet. With enough nurturing, eventually my book will bloom.


    • We have an actual gardener, folks! I know how much it must mean to you (especially in that ‘slight season’ – I feel you on that one). I can tell you will get there. You know how much is required, and you are willing to go to that extra effort. Being willing to get messy and keep digging is much more than half the battle. I know your efforts will yield gorgeous results, Kerry. Thanks for sharing!


  4. I have mulch, compost, dead growth from last season, and my gardening tools strewn all over my manuscript. By comparison, yours looks much less messy! 😉 Toil and prosper, toil and prosper, my dear writing friend.


    • We’re always toughest on our own gardens, aren’t we? Please don’t look too closely at mine. 😉 At least we have the energy we gained at Muse to propel our toil, right? Thanks for the encouragement, Hallie! Sending prosperous vibes back at you! 🙂


  5. liz says:

    Vaughn, I always admire your can-do attitude. The labor may be hard, but I’m sure the reward will be great. Good luck with revisions, and hang in there. (Also — now I want tomatoes!)


    • Because of my dad’s bounty, I am such a tomato snob! I’m not always feeling so can-do, but I know I need to take the longview, to see that reward. It’s tough. But what’s another year after so many to come this far? Thanks, Liz!


  6. Juliette says:

    You could have written this about me! Gardening and writing – two things I wish I had more time for (need to make more time for)


  7. Eileen says:

    While I’m not a writer, I understand your metaphor completely. And I think it applies to anyone trying to create, whether it’s a manuscript, or music, or any form of self-actualization. I read your blogs, and it helps me to understand where you’re at with your aspirations, and it gives me hope that, while I too am waiting to exhale, there will come a time (if the hard work is really put in) when it will come for “fruition.”
    Thanks Vaughn, for writing something that touches us all, and is cathartic (hopefully) for you too!


    • I’m glad the metaphor is adaptable beyond writing. And I know that time will come. You have never shied away from hard work. Your happy fruition is a foregone conclusion, my friend.

      Writing these is always for me first, so when I hear that it has resonated for others it’s the gravy. And who doesn’t love gravy after a hard day’s work in the garden? Thanks, Ei! 🙂


  8. ddfalvo says:

    I know that feeling well, and it’s a horrible roller coaster.

    The best part is that the critique rang true for you, which means you know what you need to do. You are in a place with the skill and tools to make what is necessary happen and you understand why. There is comfort in having direction. There is support in having the proper vehicle for the distance. And you can be confident for your route is mapped out by those who have successfully forged that road ahead of you. All you have to do is decide to enjoy the ride and soak in what appeals to your inner-compass.

    Bonds of Blood, while already an amazing story, will only be made stronger for the journey. You can do this. And I’m right there with you, doing the exact same thing. This time I’m going to focus on raising a few really great crops instead filling the big field with organic abundance–there will always be room for transplants in another garden later. 😀


    • I’m probably more comfortable this time than before major revision sessions of the past. I have grown enough to be at ease, to have some distance from the critique. I think I can find the map to deepening the story. I’m not sure about actual enjoyment… but I do know what you mean. And I certainly enjoy my fellow travelers on this writerly journey.

      Your support and encouragement and feedback have made a difference for this rewrite, D, and are much appreciated! I know you have the heart and the diligence to create a fertile plot for your story. I think your yield will surprise you more than the rest of us. You are an amazing light. The time for your story to shine is most certainly coming. Stay true! And thanks, for all you do! 🙂


  9. katmagendie says:

    I’m plain filthy – yeah


  10. sugaropal says:

    I like planting stuff and I like looking at pretty planted stuff. I hate the watering/weeding/mulching maintenance labor. That doesn’t seem to fit well with any kind of writing metaphor, and you know I love metaphors… Anyway, I think figuring out what needs to happen in a revision is the hardest part, so if you’re even partway there, great. Sometimes when a person starts digging in a garden, he’s inclined to stop digging too soon, because it’s hard work. But by digging just a little deeper, he might strike gold. Aha! *metaphor dance* which is not at all like a *safety dance*


  11. Go ahead, Rhiann. “You can dance if you want to.” I think you’re spot on about figuring out what needs to happen in a revision. Sort of like “Doing the Unstuck,” huh? I’ve got a pretty stout handle on my spade this time, having been to two revision sessions at Muse & the Marketplace last weekend (you might say, “I got Grubbie in Boston” 😉 ). And I’ve set up a Rock Your Plot phone conference with my mentor Cathy for tomorrow. This time I want to have this landscape diagrammed before I just start digging willy-nilly. Not sure about the gold, but I want to ensure a good harvest. Then, whether I strike gold or not, I’ll come away dancing. 🙂


  12. Pat Harris says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with gardening – and revising. I gardened for years in clay soil that had been depleated by previous residents and didn’t seem to want to be “undepleated.” Ugh. It’s a HUGE amount of work. The payoff was fresh air, a little produce and TONS of wild black raspberries that I neither planted nor pruned and rarely watered. lol Revising for me seems to be the same. It’s the journey–the “character developer.” Every rewrite “trip” through my last manuscript I thought I was done only to be shocked that there were more weeds in the ‘mater patch! I lost count of how many times I said prematurely, “Oh goodie!! I’m done!!” Ha. There is one good thing about revising, tho. Once you “pull a weed” it seldom comes back, unlike our “earthy” comparison where they come back with attitude. Of course, when doing major rewriting you’ll find a whole new variety of weeds. And so we start again. And again. Hand me the hoe, please…


    • I hear you on the clay soil. That’s seriously difficult to deal with. All sand down here, so not as bad, in some respects, but still far from ideal. Aren’t raspberries amazing survivors? I hear you on the premature “I’m done,” pronouncements, too. And what your saying about finding a whole new variety of weeds – I’ve wandered into a thicket. I think I’ll initially need a machete. Thanks for hoeing a row of the conversation, Patti! 🙂


  13. I love your analogy, Vaughn. I hate to garden, but I love flowers, so I do the work. In the flower beds. I leave the veggies to my husband. 😉 I’m reminded of that quote by Dorothy Parker “I hate writing, but I love to have written.” It’s so true – the work lies in getting to the final, beautiful product. But it’s work worth doing. Good luck on a speedy, yet thorough revision. 🙂


  14. You’ll have the garden you want, Vaughn, because you take the long view and you’re determined. Sometimes when faced with a tremendous challenge you have to take a little time to absorb the task at hand. Find a comfortable place in the shade, study the garden as it exists now, and soon the possibilities will grow before your eyes.


    • Wonderful advice. I was at a conference over the last weekend, and two different speakers spoke of two distinct aspects of what you’re referring to: deep observation and serious noticing. I like to think both can happen if you get comfortable and allow your mind to quiet, opening yourself to the possibilities. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Christina!


  15. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve had the high-level feedback. Even if you feel like you’re on a perma-date with the wheelbarrow, at least you’ve got a good chance of getting to to second wheel.

    Whoops. That metaphor kind of got away on me. 😉 But aside from the obvious point that you have a landscaping plan, you’ve got a lot of experience at the tidying up. It’ll go faster than the first times you grabbed a rake.

    I’ll stop now…


    • Lol on second wheel, then continuing laughter though the rest. And I agree, the tidying comes easier to me now. Funny how having gained experience seems to be lightening the load on all of it: accepting critique, sifting it for the useful, and (I hope) applying it, and tidying up the editing afterward. Thanks for making me laugh this morning, Jan! Great way to start the day.


  16. Excellent post. Yes, like my own garden, nothing to brag about. But, just a little more work. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.


  17. Vaughn, I love this post. I love Bonds of Blood. The cake is baked. And the best cooks in my experience have the messiest kitchens. Make a mess. The icing you seek, just so, just enough of this and a pinch of that, will tingle the tastebuds, and create the lasting memories, that only you can create. Blessed be your journey.


    • Oh, that’s a delicious twist on the analogy, B! I’m a pretty good cook, if I do say so, and also leave quite a messy kitchen in my wake. Perfect.

      So glad you’re enjoying BONDS! That’s what Cathy and I were talking about. Fundamentally it’s a sound story. It just needs a pinch of this and that here and there, and a bit of icing on Thaedan and Ainsela’s journeys to take it to another level. Thanks for your support and for helping me to see the upcoming mess as a good thing, my friend! 🙂


  18. Nicole L. Bates says:

    Digging in is hard, but the rewards are amazing! I’m certain this will be true for your story. Besides, coming from the mom of a five-year-old, getting messy is what life is all about. 🙂


    • I know you’ve done some deep digging of late, as well, Nicole. Wishing you all the best for a bountiful yield for your labors. And what a fitting weekend to hear such motherly wisdom. Happy Mother’s Day, my friend!


  19. msheatherwebb says:

    Dang! Ok. Let’s do this again.

    Hang in there, Roy!!! Breathe through the disappointment and be kind to yourself. I’ve been here before–many many rounds of revisions, getting the dreaded “dig deeper” feedback. (As if pouring my soul out onto the page isn’t deep enough! lol) But if you can sense you’re nearing the end of the journey with this piece, wrap yourself around that sentiment! That instinct is so powerful as we wade through the final dark days. I have faith in you!! Soldier on!


    • Sorry about your comments not showing up, Heather. I was out of town overnight with no access to email (hard to believe in this day and age, huh? 😉 ). Thanks so much, not just for your kind sentiments, experience and encouragement, but for your tenacity in commenting! I really do appreciate your shining the light back downhill for me, and for your friendship, Heather. And Roy is a new nickname for me, but I kind of like it. So thanks for that, too! 🙂


  20. […] already written about my dad’s love of gardening, here. He grew up on the farm, and his inner farm-boy remained intact throughout his life. He loved big […]


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